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Plain Cigarette Packs: A Grotesque Illustration of Modern Politics

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Editor’s note: this article by Christopher Snowdon first appeared on Spiked

Plain packaging of cigarettes is the kind of idea that is discussed at three in the morning and forgotten about before the next day when the hangover kicks in. If the example of Australia is anything to go by, the policy involves removing all branding from cigarette packs and covering them with lurid images of smoking-related disease instead. Its bewildering elevation to national high priority is a testament to the power of the ‘public health’ lobby and the stunted mentality of politics in 2014. The scheme was first proposed in Canada in the early 1990s, abandoned and then ignored for the next 15 years until governments had capitulated to every whim of the anti-smoker lobby and fresh meat was required.

Ever since the smoking ban came into force in England in 2007 – one of the world’s most draconian – the UK tobacco-control industry has resorted to a policy of pretending that smoking doesn’t exist. Booting smokers outside, hiding tobacco behind shutters and abolishing cigarette logos all contribute to activists’ comforting illusion, an illusion that is all the more vital since smoking in the real world exists as much as it did before they went into overdrive. At the time of the smoking ban, 21 per cent of adults smoked; at the last count, in 2012, the figure was 20.5 per cent. In other words, the effect of an unprecedented binge of anti-tobacco legislation has amounted to a rounding error in the smoking statistics.

Silly and desperate though it sounds, plain packaging is something – and something must be done, or so it is supposed. Once the tobaccophobes decided that taking the colour purple away from Silk Cut was better than nothing, they pursued the idea with missionary zeal. Such zealots might not be very good at encouraging people to quit the weed, but they have become peerless at bending the ear of politicians.

First up was the evidence. In a parody of real science, a ‘systematic review’ of the various policy-based studies, surveys and hunches of activist-researchers was commissioned by the Department of Health (DoH). Authors included the full-time anti-capitalist academic and part-time poet Gerard Hastings (sample lyric: ‘I am the Corporation and I’ll crush you in the end’) and a professor of socio-management, Linda Bauld, the Comical Ali of the public-health lobby, whose war against reality has previously compelled her to insist (in another review for the DoH) that the pub trade has not been damaged by the smoking ban. (In fact, the rate of pub closures accelerated markedly after the ban was introduced.)

If you believe that people start smoking because a mere 40 per cent of a fag pack’s surface – rather than nearly all of it – is taken up by a photograph of a tumour, then plain packaging is the policy for you. You are probably the target market for the pseudo-scientific surveys that ask teenagers whether they find ugly packs uglier than less ugly packs. Among the many lowlights in the attempt to portray plain packaging as an evidence-based endeavour was the peer-reviewed study that asked supporters of the plain-packaging policy how much they thought the smoking rate might fall if the policy were introduced (one per cent, since you ask). Two other peer-reviewed studies involved one of plain packaging’s most fervent supporters analysing the arguments against the policy. She found them unpersuasive. Fancy that.

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